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France’s Changing History: Three Questions for Michèle C. Cone

Michèle C. Cone’s review of Alexandra Laignel-Lavastine’s Cioran, Eliade, Ionesco: l’oubli du fascisme: trois intellectuels roumains dans la tourmente du siècle (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2002) appears in Telos 146. Nicole Burgoyne followed up with some questions.

Nicole Burgoyne: In discussing the success of Ionesco, Cioran, and Eliade in postwar France, despite their earlier ties to the Fascists, you postulate that in addition to the authors’ successful hiding of their past, a “conscious or unconscious complicity” of France’s postwar intellectual community provided a supporting network. Do you subscribe to such historical accounts of postwar France’s national narrative as Henry Rousso’s The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France Since 1944? Rousso’s history traces the development of Gaullist myth as a political creation, but credits creative works like The Sorrow and the Pity with shattering it. Where do Lavastine’s three subjects, and her research itself, fit into this history?

Michèle Cone: Henry Rousso describes the Resistancialist myth as “a process that sought, first, the marginalization of what the Vichy regime was, and a systematic diminution of its imprint on French society, including its most negative aspects; second, the construction of an objet de mémoire, the Resistance, far larger than the algebraic sum of the acting minorities who were resisters . . . ; third, the assimilation of this ‘Resistance’ into the entirety of the nation, typical of Gaullist Resistancialism.” Its heyday, he proposes, coincided with the years 1958 to 1968, when Charles de Gaulle was the president of France. The Ophuls film The Sorrow and the Pity, which “shattered that myth,” was not shown in France until 1981, the year when François Mitterrand became president. While the Gaullists had supported the myth of a unified France against Vichy and the Nazi enemy, the Socialists now in power saw the Ophuls film as sympathetic to a new myth embodied by the opportunistic political past of their president, who first supported the Vichy regime and then shifted allegiance to the Resistance. The shattering of the Resistancialist myth did not, it seems to me, get us any closer to how the French, including the intellectuals among them, behaved during the Occupation years.

The emergence of Ionesco, Cioran, and Eliade—the latter two overtly pro-Nazi—dates back to 1949–51 and has a different context, which Daniel Lindenberg points to in Les années souterraines 1937–1947 (“Résistance: une culture mort-née”). He sorts out not two but three major intellectual networks emerging from World War II: (1) the Resistance-inspired literature, which, he says, was put down as inferior in formal qualities; (2) the existentialist philosophy of left-wing intellectuals who had not been actively involved in the Resistance but who had not collaborated; and (3) an old right-wing intellectual elite that emerged under the scrutiny of liberation tribunals for pro-Vichy or pro-Nazi attitudes. Thanks to their value to France as big names, members of this last grouping were quickly forgiven and resumed their role as mentors to the likes of Eliade and Cioran, among others. Was Jean Paulhan, the moral conscience of intellectual France after the war, an early case of “Resistancialist” denial when he turned against the verdicts of purge tribunals, or was he implying that context is irrelevant to the criticism of literary works?

Burgoyne: You mention that structuralism and semiology interpret texts without reference to historical and political context. Could you elaborate?

Cone: This takes me straight to a second point explaining the success of our three Romanians: the rise shortly after World War II in Paris of a new generation of theoreticians of literature who constructed formalist structuralist models of criticism that built walls against contextual influences (Roland Barthes, Alain Robbe-Grillet, and probably Paulhan), of historians of the longue durée, whose strategies downplayed the chronology of recent events (Braudel, Le Roy Ladurie), not to forget the anthropologist father of structuralism, Claude Lévi-Strauss. At this time, says Lindenberg, “issues of truth are placed in parentheses in favor of an interrogation of the desire for truth, and of a reduction of all reality to language games, to ‘mythologies,’ as Barthes himself will say in 1953.” It is hard to avoid seeing these developments as very helpful to intellectuals with a guilty conscience, including our three Romanians.

Burgoyne: What would you say is the best approach for a reader interested in the works of Ionesco, Cioran, and Eliade? Does one have to know the many twists and turns of each author’s ideology? If it is possible for an author to write a disingenuous memoir, I would think it is equally possible for them to work to conform to social expectations in other forms of expression. Does the disingenuousness negatively affect the creative work produced?

Cone: This is not a new issue. I don’t think an objective answer is possible. What is interesting for a critic is not the discovery of the lie, but whether the new element of biography—that so-and-so was once pro-Fascist and an anti-Semite—manifests itself in the very core and style of the creative work. Thus, any new finding that enriches the critical discourse concerning this individual is to be welcomed.

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